Filtering by Tag: Division Previews

Division Preview: National League West

If you like drama, the NL West should deliver. The division is home to some of baseball’s most contentious rivalries, including one between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks that reached a high at almost the last possible moment last year, when the Dodgers celebrated clinching the division title by jumping in the pool at Arizona’s Chase Field.  However, there isn’t a real race between contenders, with most teams lacking sufficient depth to make a real run.

The Contenders:

Los Angeles Dodgers

The “Showtime Dodgers” might best describe the current Los Angeles squad.  They started 2013 30-42, 9½ games behind the Diamondbacks, before catching fire in June, eventually winning the division by 11 games.  Powered by Clayton Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, and Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers enter 2014 as favorites in the division, but the NL West bulked up this offseason perhaps more than any other division, and the Dodgers have issues worth watching.

The Dodgers made a push to resign Michael Young to play second base as a stopgap for Cuban-signee Alex Gurrero, but instead opted for a light-hitting platoon of Dee Gordon and Justin Turner. Former MVP Matt Kemp’s slow return from ankle surgery has been well documented, but if healthy, Kemp gives the Dodgers a loaded outfield.

After Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, the Dodgers used eight different starters last season.  To solidify the final two spots, they signed Dan Haren to be the fourth starter and Paul Maholm as insurance for Josh Beckett and Chad Billinglsey. Pitchers not named Kershaw, Greinke, and Ryu went 17-25 with a 4.75 ERA in 372.4 innings in 2013. Those eight pitchers had a combined 1.3 WAR, which means Haren, coming off a strong second half for the Washington Nationals, and the fifth starter only need to be average to be better than what the Dodgers got last year.

The Dodgers season has already started, having played the Diamondbacks twice in Australia last weekend. It will take more time for the division race to be decided, but Los Angeles looked like the division winner the experts predicted.  It didn’t take long, but Puig-related drama has already started, and while reports of a rift between manager Don Mattingly and Puig are overstated, the Dodgers cannot afford to throw away a division title that belongs to them.

San Francisco Giants

The Giants 2013 season was a disaster. A year after winning the world series in five games, San Francisco finished 76-86; ranked 21st in runs scored, 22nd in ERA, 20th in starting pitcher innings, 23rd in walks (including last in intentional walks); and suffered from injuries to Pablo Sandoval, Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan, and Andres Torres. Rather than overhaul the roster, general manager Brian Sabean made tweaks, signing outfielder Michael Morse and pitcher Tim Hudson, banking on rebound seasons by almost every core member of the 2010 and 2012 teams.

San Francisco might seem like an also-ran in a division with the Dodgers but they believe in their ability to contend. Despite the weak offense, individual Giants hitters had good seasons.  Scutaro hit .297/.357/.369 in 127 games and will hit second in the lineup when he returns from the disabled list, Hunter Pence posted career highs in home runs and stolen bases, and Buster Posey followed up his MVP 2012 by hitting .294/.371/.450.

Surrounding those three with support in the lineup is going be critical for the Giant’s chances in the division. Pablo Sandoval is in the best shape of his life for the second or third time of his career and is in his walk year. At 27 years old, a good season will net him a big contract in free agency.  Angel Pagan was limited to 71 games last year, and his presence was sorely missed. If healthy, his career .756 OPS should jump-start the leadoff position, which ranked 24th in baseball last year.  While Brandon Belt’s power numbers were pedestrian for a first baseman, he hit .346 with seven home runs in the final 52 games of the year.  The Giants believe the adjustments he’s made and the weight gained will make him an all-star this year.  Add in Morse, who if healthy could use right field at AT&T Park to his advantage to post excellent power numbers, and the Giants have a postseason-caliber offense.

It is always difficult to predict how a team built around a catcher will fare over the course of a 162-game season, but if right, the Giants can challenge the Dodgers for the division.  Matt Cain’s second half ERA was 270 points lower than his first half ERA, and the peripheral statistics suggest he can repeat that success. The key for the Giants success is a rebound season from Ryan Vogelsong, who has been the lynchpin of the rotation since arriving in San Francisco in 2011, because most of the organization’s best pitching prospects are going to open 2014 at the lower minor leagues.

The Pretenders:

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks may be the antithesis of the Dodgers. They opened the season 47-41 and looked like they had the Dodgers on the run before sliding in the second half. Patrick Corbin had a dominant first half with a trip to the all-star game, but lost seven of his last 11 starts while the rest of the team went 29-26 in the final two months to finish 81-81, 11 games back in the division.

General manager Kevin Towers has shipped a lot of talent out of Arizona in the last two years, trading Justin Upton, Trevor Bauer, Ian Kennedy, Adam Eaton, and Matt Davidson for mostly less talented returns. It is not because they do not value their ability, but because they would rather have players that fit their system than stars.  They look at the Boston Red Sox’s World Series winning team as a model for success, relying on cohesion and depth instead of talent; valuing Pollock, Martin Prado, and Paul Goldschmidt higher than Upton, Eaton, and Bauer.

Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, their equity did not get them far during the offseason.  They were aggressive in their pursuit of talent, making a large offer to Carlos Beltran, submitting a bid for Masahiro Tanaka, and exploring a trade for Jeff Samardzija, but were unsuccessful.  Instead, they settled for Bronson Arroyo and Mark Trumbo.

While adding Arroyo, Trumbo, and Addison Reed significantly improves their competitiveness, the team lacks sufficient star talent and significant depth to compete with the star-studded Dodgers. While teams can win when built around pitching, defense, and timely hitting, the Diamondbacks most important hitters not named Goldschmidt are not satisfactory when compared to their Los Angeles counterparts.  While Trumbo is one of baseball’s most underrated sluggers, he is going to have to do more than hit home runs for the Diamondbacks to be competitive. Unfortunately, he enters his age-28 season a career .250/.299/.470 hitter and -1.7 WAR in 75 games in left field, his everyday position this year.

The real nail in the coffin for the Diamondbacks was the news that Corbin will miss the entire season after having Tommy John surgery earlier this week.  Corbin was originally going to be the opening day starter and anchor a staff that desperately needed an ace.  His injury may be the single biggest loss suffered by any team this year.  While top pitching prospect Archie Bradley, the 21-year-old who opened 2013 pitching in High-A, could debut this season, he cannot reasonably be expected to lead their pitching staff to contention this year.

San Diego Padres

San Diego entered spring training the trendy pick for 2014.  2013 was thought to be their chance at contention, with Chase Headley returning to a team that if healthy, could come together for a run at the division title. Instead, they lost 1883 man-games to injury, bringing their two-year total to 3,776 games lost. The Padres have quietly acquired a stable of underrated talent, but have never been able to get them on the field at the same time.

Last year's midseason trade for Ian Kennedy gives the Padres a very good rotation.  Led by Andrew Cashner, the pitching staff could surprise.  Unfortunately, injury-prone offseason signee Josh Johnson is already hurt and expected to miss five weeks.  The Padres pitching staff allowed 80 home runs in 81 games at Petco Park, but did rank fifth in home ERA in all of baseball.

Because of their difficult first half schedule -46 games versus teams that finished2013 .500 or better before the all-star break- the Padres season is going to be in jeopardy early.  Corey Luebke is going to miss his second straight season, Joe Wieland is going to be out until June, and talented but perennially injured Cameron Maybin will miss at least the first two months with a biceps injury. In a division that lacks real depth, the Padres have as good a chance as any to contend if they can outlast injuries.  However, history suggests the only title the Padres will win is man-games lost for the third year in a row. At least San Diego is a pleasant city to live in.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies have not been relevant in the National League since 2009, when Jim Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle as manager after 46 games, winning 20 of his first 25 games including a 17-1 stretch and finishing the season with 92 wins.  Since then, and in 18 years since Coors Field was opened, the Rockies have consistently been one of the best offensive teams in baseball, and project to be one this year as long as Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez stay healthy, anchoring a lineup that has both power and depth.  The problem, same as every year, is pitching.  Pitching in Colorado has been mostly unsolvable, leading Rockies management to try everything from big-name free agents to four-man stating rotations in an attempt to remain competitive.

In 1997, the Rockies signed 19-game winner Darryl Kile to a three-year contract that made him the fourth-highest paid pitcher in baseball.  His two years in Colorado were a disaster; he had a 5.20 ERA in 1998 and 6.99 ERA in 1999; the second-worst season by a starting pitcher in history.  Giving up, Kile was traded to St. Louis in 2000, and went 41-24 with a 3.54 ERA in two-plus seasons for the Cardinals.  Kile isn’t the exception; Mike Hampton, Jeremy Guthrie, and Greg Maddux all had forgettable experiences at Coors.  According to Hardball Times, the Colorado air takes 10 percent of the velocity and 20 percent of the spin off a pitch. That means a fastball that leaves a pitcher’s hand at 95 miles per hour will arrive at the plate at 86 miles per hour. It also means a good curveball can arrive at the plate a cement mixer waiting to be put in the seats. Scouts surmise the best pitches to throw at Coors Field are sliders and cutters; also considered the two most fatigue-inducing pitches.

To the Rockies credit, they appear to have potentially their best rotation in years in Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio, Tyler Chatwood, and Brett Anderson.  However, Chacin is going to start the season on the disabled list and De La Rosa has only two complete seasons in 10 years.  If Anderson, once considered a promising pitching prospect, can sustain success, the Rockies will have a passable rotation. The problem is they are going to need that group to stay healthy, because pitchers that can sustain success in Colorado are few and far between.

To make things harder for the Rockies is even though Tulowitzki and Gonzalez have five all-star appearances between them, each only has one full season in the last four.   While the offense is augmented by the addition of Justin Morneau and the defense should be good, the Rockies narrow chances at contending in the division will be non-existent if their two most important players do not play every day.

The Verdict:

Dodgers win the division.

It is hard to argue with a reigning division champion with as much talent as the Dodgers.  The Dodgers are in a rare position where they will be able to lean on a deep and hard-throwing bullpen to offset a potentially troublesome back of the rotation because of the reliability of the first three starters; if Ryu's weight-loss equates to improvement, the Dodgers will have one of the best starting-three in the game. There are questions about the outfield configuration when Kemp returns, and he has already said he is not a fourth outfielder.  While they are downplaying reports of contention between Puig and his manager, clubhouse drama has derailed championship-caliber teams before.  Even though it is improved, the division is the Dodgers’ to lose so long as they do not combust.

One name everyone has ignored with potential to impact the division race is Daniel Hudson.  Working his way back from his second Tommy John, Hudson has not been healthy since 2011, when he threw 222 innings and won 16 games. While he will not be available until after the all-star break, if at all, he is only 27 and could provide a boost to the Diamondbacks late in the season if they are in the hunt. If healthy, he has the ability to impact the division race.

Division Preview: American League East

You don’t have to like any of the teams in the American League East to be intrigued. This division is going to be action packed all season long, and with this offensive-heavy division, the team that pitches best will be left standing at season’s end. Whichever team finishes on top at the end of the season will not have won, they simply will have survived. The Contenders:

New York Yankees

2013 was one of the more bizarre Yankee seasons in recent memory. Alex Rodriguez missed most of the season with a hip injury and became the first player in the history of the game to be suspended the day of his season debut. Curtis Granderson was hurt in spring training and broke his finger when hit by a pitch on May 28, ten days after returning from his first injury. In total, the Yankees used 56 players over the course of the season. Set against the backdrop of the Rodriguez circus and Mariano Riveria’s farewell tour, the Yankees easily could have crumbled. Joe Girardi deserves all the credit in the world for managing that team to 85 wins.

Initially promising not to exceed the MLB’s luxury tax ceiling of $189 million, the Yankees blew past it, spending roughly $500 million on Masahiro Tanaka, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and an extension for Brett Gardner. The Yankees let Robinson Cano leave for Seattle without much of a fight, but turned the money efforted towards resigning him into multiple players. The addition of Tanaka to a rotation that includes a slimmed-down CC Sabathia, an improved Ivan Nova, and a healthy Michael Pineda will help a pitching staff that ranked 18th in ERA last year.

The Yankees still have major concerns. In addition to losing Cano, Rivera and reliever Boone Logan; Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson are going to be counted on to anchor second and third base despite injury concern and inexperience at the position, respectively. Mark Teixeira played only 15 games last year, suffering from a wrist injury that eventually required surgery. The injury, a torn tendon sheath, is similar to injuries sustained by Mark DeRosa and Jordan Schafer, sapping them of their power, so it remains to see how Teixeira will rebound. Derek Jeter is healthy after missing all but 17 games last year with the ankle injury he suffered in the 2012 postseason, but he is attempting to become the first 40-year-old, every day shortstop on a winning team in the history of the game.

Boston Red Sox

If for no other reason, Boston earns points for being the defending champions. The Red Sox have a solid, if unspectacular team, and retained most of the key starters from last season.

Boston allowed Ellsbury and shortstop Stephen Drew to leave via free agency, but should be able to replace their production internally without a major setback. Rookie Xander Bogaerts hit .250/.320/.364 in 18 games last year and should be at least an above average shortstop or third baseman. While Jackie Bradley does not profile to be the base-stealer that Ellsbury was for the Red Sox, he is considered one of their top prospects and can be an impact player at the major league level this year.

If the Red Sox have a weakness, it’s a pitching staff that ranked 14th in ERA in 2013. However, that was with fewer than 30 starts from John Lackey, Felix Doubront, and Clay Buccholz. Pitching after Jon Lester in the rotation, the Red Sox are going to need full seasons from all three to remain competitive in the division.

Tampa Bay Rays

There is a saying about Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon. He is the manager of the year every year, but sometimes others win it. The Rays won 92 games in 2013 with an incredibly solid team that returns most of its key players, and a few acquisitions that could pay off in a big way.

They Rays had a mostly quiet offseason, but they acquired three new faces in Logan Forsythe, Brad Boxberger, and Heath Bell. A utility player with the ability to play the entire infield, Forsythe’s name is an important one to watch. Despite hitting only .214/.281/.332 in 75 games last year, he posted the fourth-highest line drive rate among all qualified batters for the second straight year. If the Rays coaches work their magic, he could upgrade an offense that ranked 11th in runs scored last year.

The Rays chose not to trade David Price with only one year of team control left after 2014. He leads a starting rotation that may be one of the safest bets in baseball. Jeremy Hellickson was terrible last year after two excellent seasons, but will be out most of the first half of the season after offseason elbow surgery. That may work for the Ray’s favor; he will be hitting his stride in time for the final stretch of the season. In the meantime, 2013 Rookie of the Year finalist Chris Archer takes the fourth spot in the rotation with Jake Odorizzi the fifth starter.

Baltimore Orioles

A year after hitting a career-high 33 home runs, Chris Davis became a household name, hitting 53 and posting a 1.004 OPS. It did not do the Orioles much good, as they won eight fewer games and missed the postseason. The Orioles received some negative attention this offseason, flunking Tyler Colvin and Grant Balfour’s physicals before signing free agents Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez.

The Orioles drop-off was peculiar. The team had virtually the same batting statistics both years, scored 33 more runs, and posted an offensive WAR 14 points higher than in 2012. The pitching was only marginally worse, allowing 36 more runs than in 2012, but maintained virtually identical strikeout and walk ratios. The Orioles step back is better explained by their performance in close games in 2012, when they went 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra-innings. Success like that is partially a result of good fortune, which reversed in 2013, when they went 16-26 in one-run games.

Regardless of their luck, the Orioles needed significant upgrades to contend this year. Their pitching staff finished 20th or lower in ERA, quality starts, and WHIP last year. To remedy the pitching, general manager Dan Duquette signed Jimenez to a four-year contract. Jimenez can be a devastating strikeout pitcher, but also one of the most erratic in the game. With top prospects Kevin Gausman possibly starting the season in the bullpen and Dylan Bundy rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, the club is counting on a dominant season from Jimenez.

The Orioles are going to need improved performances from several players in order to compete. Nick Markakis is coming off the worst season of his career and is going to open the season hitting leadoff; which the Orioles need to improve on the 18th ranked OPS that hitters combined to hit from the position last year. Most of the peripheral statistics matched his career norms, so if he sustains success leading off the Orioles should be a much more balanced offensive team.

The Pretender:

Toronto Blue Jays

How many divisions in baseball are going to have as much distribution of talent other than the AL East? Unfortunately for Toronto, their ticket is punched for last place. One year after trading top-end prospects in two major trades for R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and Mark Buehrle, among others, the Blue Jays have a much lower ceiling to reach.

2013 was nothing short of disaster for Toronto. Johnson made only 16 starts, Buehrle had a down year, and Dickey’s ERA ballooned by 148 points one year after winning the Cy Young as a member of the New York Mets. In total, they used 13 starting pitchers, and were of no help to an offense that ranked ninth in baseball. Of the starters who qualified statistically, only Johnson is not returning.

The front office made little attempt at upgrading the team. They were linked to Ian Kinsler in trade rumors, but a deal never materialized. When Ervin Santana signed with the Atlanta Braves last week, reaction in Toronto was devastation. In all, the Blue Jays only added two new players of consequence: catchers Erik Kratz and Dioner Navarro.

The Blue Jays may be thinking that they will gain additions by subtraction, hoping that if healthy, J.A. Happ, Esmil Rodgers, Brandon Morrow, and Ricky Romero could be solid contributors. While the Jays have a decent team on paper, they did nothing to upgrade a pitching staff that was one of the worst in baseball last year. Barring a miraculous turn around, the Blue Jays will waste another year of the prime years of Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista, and Colby Rasmus, who will become a free agent at the end of the season.

The Verdict:

Red Sox win the division.

The AL East may be the toughest division of any to predict. The improved Yankees and Orioles means the Red Sox will likely not win 97 games again, but both will need to demonstrate improved play or upgrade their weaknesses before being considered possible contenders. The Red Sox led baseball in runs scored by a runaway margin last year and can expect to get better pitching from a healthy Buccholz and Lester, who is pitching for a new contract. They are entering the post-Ellsbury era, but have multiple candidates to replace him in-house, and can expect Dustin Pedroia to hit more home runs after having surgery to fix a thumb injury that bothered him for all of 2013.  The Red Sox only needed minor changes to possibly replicate last year's performance, whereas the other teams in the east need to get significantly better to have even a chance at winning the division.

Division Previews: American League West

With potentially three contending teams, the American League West promises to be active this year.  So you are in luck if you enjoy staying up late to watch baseball.  One can argue that every team in the division improved this past offseason and gives you a reason to watch, even the Houston Astros if you enjoy family-friendly Schadenfreude.

The Contenders:

Texas Rangers

What a time to be a Rangers fan.  After years of futility and financial woe, Texas won at least 90 games for the fourth straight season last year, but lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in game 163 of the season to miss the postseason.  Not wasting any time, general manager Jon Daniels retooled, signing outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year, $130 million contract and traded for slugging first baseman Prince Fielder.

The big and bad Rangers are back.  The additions of Choo and Fielder to an offense that ranked eighth in baseball in 2013 will give the Rangers one of, if not the best lineup in the American League.

While Ian Kinsler’s hope that they go 0-162 this year will not happen, the Rangers have serious concerns.  Derek Holland’s bizarre offseason knee injury could keep him out until the all-star break, and Matt Harrison, who missed most of 2013 with a back injury, may start the season on the 15-day disabled list.  While they can expect Yu Darvish to be even better in 2014, the Rangers are going to need tremendous efforts from Martin Perez, Alexi Ogando, and Colby Lewis to keep them relevant until reinforcements arrive.

The Rangers significantly improved an already good lineup, so it shouldn’t keep manager Ron Washington up late at night.  If they had one weakness, it was a league average .723 OPS from the leadoff position, but Choo’s .285/.423/.462 should vault those numbers to among baseball’s best.  Fielder is a name to keep an eye on; moving to hitter-friendly Globe Life Park should help him recover some of his lost power, but there are questions about how his hefty frame will age and if the Rangers would be better off with him becoming a full-time designated hitter.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

I wonder how Angels fans are sleeping these days.  One year after missing the postseason in Albert Pujols and Mike Trout’s first season in Los Angeles, general manager Jerry Dipoto made another splash, bringing in Josh Hamilton from Texas on a five-year contract.  The Result was an even worse 2013, and rumblings that either Dipoto or manager Mike Scioscia would be fired at season’s end.

Both were retained, and the Angels made more personnel changes.  They traded home run and RBI leader Mark Trumbo for Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago, and traded speedy center fielder Peter Bourjos for third baseman David Freese.

As bad as 2013 was for the Angels, they finished eighth in baseball in runs scored despite career-worst seasons by Pujols and Hamilton.  Their pitching that did them in; their staff had the seventh worst ERA in baseball.

The Angels will be better this year.  They scraped together 78 wins with a disastrous pitching staff, a visibly hurt Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton’s brutal first year in Anaheim.  Skaggs, Santiago, Freese, and designated hitter Raul Ibanez are all upgrades.  Kole Calhoun, almost found money last season, will hit leadoff this year with Trout hitting second, in theory giving the Angels as good a middle of the lineup as the Rangers and Athletics.  The Los Angeles farm system was recently ranked the second worst by ESPN’s Keith Law, which combined with their aging lineup does not bode well for their chances to contend long-term.  If they do not put it all together this year, you have to wonder if they will have missed their window.

Oakland Athletics

Billy Beane and Bob Melvin really know how to run a team.  With the sixth lowest payroll in baseball and a (literally) stinky stadium, Oakland won 96 games and their second straight division title, losing to the Detroit Tigers in game five of the ALDS.  At first glance, the Athletics are bringing back the same team, but they had a very busy off-season, acquiring six new bodies via trade and free agency, notably Scott Kazmir, who made 29 starts for the Cleveland Indians last year.

Perhaps the most amazing part about the Athletics 96-win season is they did it with down seasons by outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, who both broke through in 2012 and led the Athletics to their first division title and postseason appearance in six years.  After the season ended, Reddick admitted his inured wrist bothered him all year; Cespedes that he did not make the proper adjustments in his second season.  They both come with concerns, Cespedes’ walk and strikeout rates declined, his isolated power shrank, and his on-base percentage dropped an alarming 60 points.  Reddick’s career battling line of .239/.302/.427 does not inspire a lot of confidence, but he did post a career-high walk rate last year.   His power is real and his defense is spectacular, so he only has to get a little better to be tremendously valuable to the Athletics.

Even if Cespedes and Reddick do not replicate their 2012 seasons, the Athletics are more than capable of compensating.  They have quietly built one of the most complete teams in baseball and are perhaps best built for the postseason as any team in the American League West.  The additions of Craig Gentry and Nick Punto solidify their bench, and are capable of playing well in limited stretches.  Drew Pomeranz, acquired from the Colorado Rockies for Brett Anderson, was a minor league standout but wilted pitching in Colorado.  The change to a pitcher-friendly stadium could turn him into one of the best fifth starters in baseball.  Kazmir currently projects to be the second or third starter, but could be the ace of the staff by season’s end.  Once considered one of the best left-handed starters in the game, injuries threw off his career before signing with the Indians in 2013, becoming one of the great stories of the season.  His velocity improved over the course of the season, and was excellent down the stretch, allowing only 23 runs in his final 53 innings of the regular season.

The Pretenders:

Seattle Mariners

Seattle certainly made headlines this offseason, landing the big prize, Robinson Cano on a 10-year, $240 million contract to anchor the franchise for the next decade.

Unfortunately, the Mariners did not do much else to get excited about.  After breaking the bank for Cano, general manager Jack Zduriencik went to the bargain basement to fill out the roster.  For as much as the Mariner pitching staff has been heralded in the last year, they allowed the fifth most runs, and their young pitching core of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Danny Hultzen appears to have sprung a leak.  Walker is only throwing long-toss with no timetable to pitch, and Hultzen may miss the entire season rehabbing from October shoulder surgery.  Of the three, Paxton is the only guarantee to make the opening day rotation, just in time for Hishashi Iwakuma to miss the first month with a finger injury.  If Walker starts the season on the disabled list, their rotation looks very murky after ace Felix Hernandez.

Of Zduriencik’s bargain acquisitions, the one to watch is Corey Hart.  He missed all of 2013 after having surgery on both knees and was jettisoned by the Milwaukee Brewers in favor of Juan Francisco.  It is hard to predict how a 32-year-old will rebound from a major lower body injury, but the Mariners would not have signed him to bat cleanup if they weren’t confident in his chances.  Hart could follow the path of Carlos Beltran, who returned to being a star after missing substantial time with knee problems.  Hart was younger at the time of his surgery than Beltran and is a superior athlete, but might be better off playing first base than right field.

The Mariners face long odds to make the postseason this year, but shouldn’t be slept on.   Cano makes them that much better, but they have one too many project players to make an Indians-like jump in the standings.  However, if one or two out of Dustin Ackley, Logan Morrison, Justin Smoak, or Jesus Montero takes a step forward this year, they could be relevant down the stretch.

Houston Astros

No team in baseball might be further away from contention than Houston.  They lost 111 games in 2013 and saved the worst for last, dropping 15 straight to end the season; finishing dead last in runs scored, runs allowed, and differential.  The only way the Astros will contend this year is if every other team in baseball decides to end the season at the all-star break.   Unless you have a strong affinity for Dexter Fowler or Jose Altuve, the Astros give you little reason to watch.

That being said, the Astros don’t deserve a lot of ribbing.  Their players enjoy playing for Houston native Bo Porter, and the front office, led by Nolan Ryan’s son Reid, has poured money into player development and hired Jeff Luhnow as general manager.

Luhnow served as assistant general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals for eight years and was their director of player development from 2006 until moving to Houston in 2011.  Luhnow pioneered the Cardinals unique development philosophy that produced 25 major league players from the 2005-07 drafts.  Astros prospects were ranked first overall by Keith Law for the upcoming season and could develop into a team that rivals the “beehive.” While most of the blue-chippers will not make an impact until next year at the earliest, hard-throwing Mike Foltynewicz, dynamic George Springer and the 315-pound Japhet Amador could all debut sometime this year.

The Prediction:

Oakland Athletics win third straight division title.

Fine, don't give them any credit for winning the division two years in a row.  The Athletics are not the sexy pick in a division with so much elite talent. However, they may be the sturdiest team of any, building a contender starting with the 25th man and working up.  The Rangers will likely lead the division in offense, but have serious pitching concerns.  The Angels figure to be better with a healthy Pujols and a better year from Josh Hamilton, but they are entering the stage of their careers when MVP performances are unlikely.  Even if they put it together, success will require Santiago and Skaggs to pitch at a high level down the stretch, which may be too much to ask from young pitchers who haven’t done it before.  Meanwhile, as a unit, the Athletics top three starting pitchers Kazmir, Jarrod Parker, and Sonny Gray could out perform their counterparts around the division, and the team’s overall cohesion will allow Melvin to lean on the bench and bullpen more than other managers.

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